But what if I’m wrong?

Yeah, we’re back on the subject of debating religion, but at least I’m warning you ahead of time, and providing other topics you can go to as well. I’m that kind of guy ;-)

Among the many common debates that arise is a simple question, posed by religious folk to atheists: “What if you’re wrong?” And initially, it often seems like a valid question. While I suspect many people come to it independently, it’s best known as Pascal’s Wager, after the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who is as known for this as he is for inventing a computer language that did not achieve popularity until 340 years or so after his death – unlike George Cobol, who was never known for his programming language and instead garnered his fame through Hollywood Squares. Anyway, Pascal’s Wager basically says, “If you believe in a god but you’re wrong, nothing is lost, but if you don’t believe in a god and you’re wrong, you burn in hell for eternity, so you’re better off believing, ya know?”

On composition, part seven: Depth

So our next topic of discussion on the subject of composition is “depth” – what it does and how to present it.

Depth is one of those things that is subtle, but very effective, most especially in landscape photography. Drawing the viewer into the photo, making them feel that they have a window into your image, rather than a flat “painting,” can give a much better impression. Photographs are, by nature, two-dimensional; you cannot change viewing angle for your monitor right now and get a different perspective, or dodge to the side and see what was hidden behind a tree. But we can fool the viewer into interpreting depth in our images, and this makes them more dynamic. Many beginning photographers take “straight on” images, lining their friends up together in a wall in front of the camera and shooting at eye level – this is what makes snapshots. But if you think in terms of providing depth to the image, you can create a much better photo with only a tiny amount of effort.

We read minimal clues when we look at images, things like objects getting smaller with distance, parallel lines appearing to converge (think roads and railroad tracks,) and a very sneaky one, the curvature of the view as we look downwards versus straight ahead, as seen here. Going for a lower vantage point and a wider-angle lens (I believe this was 24mm on film, which is 15mm on most digital SLRs,) we seem to be seeing straight ahead in the center of this image, but actually downwards into the water towards the bottom of the frame – and we really are, due to the optical effect of wide-angle lenses. You can enhance this by aiming slightly downwards to bring more of the foreground into the image, to make that distance and change in perspective apparent. If you asked most people what the subject of this image is, they’d say, “the waterfall,” but that only takes up 15-20% of the image. The subject is more the setting itself, the placid pool in the rocky alcove, and the waterfall only adds charm rather than taking over the image. For this, I used a small aperture of f22 for a high depth-of-field, keeping the very close stones in the bottom of the pool, as well as the distant waterfall, in tight focus. This provided the added effect of blurring the moving water, since I needed a slow shutter speed to let in enough light past that small aperture for a proper exposure. Naturally, the camera was on a tripod for this.

But you can induce depth exactly the opposite way, too, by using a wide aperture and thus cutting your depth-of-field down very short. This means that subjects within your frame with only a small separation of distance between them can have different focus – your main subject is in tight focus, but something only a short distance behind it or in front of it goes out of focus, making the idea of depth even more distinct. You can see an example of this (and more about how to do it) on this page. You can also exaggerate this effect by using a longer focal length, or by getting very close to your subject. Both of these result in higher magnification, and depth-of-field drops shorter with more magnification, plus it gets shorter with closer focusing distances. Alternately, wide angle lenses give the greatest depth-of-field, most especially at long focus distances.

Anything that either draws a line or shows distinct reduction with distance perspective works very well for inducing depth in the image – the two fisherman in this image demonstrate this nicely. You can also use, as mentioned above, roads, fences, and even fields of distinct objects like flowers, which will give the viewer specific shapes to see reducing with distance. Getting closer to any of these will exaggerate the effect, making them loom larger in the bottom of the image and increasing the disparity of sizes within the frame.

This leads us to another compositional element: leading lines. Our eyes naturally follow implied paths, which curiously could very well be an evolutionary trait, helping us spot the easiest passages and game trails. But in images, it means we track such lines with some expectation of seeing something at the end of them, and as a photographer you can use this trait. Here, I had plenty of positions to take on this road, but I chose this particular side because it placed the moon almost directly above the converging lines of the road and verge, and even has some subtle help from the treelines. Timing it to let a car go past gave greater emphasis to the road and provided some light down there – otherwise, if I’d exposed to let the moon light up the road surface, the moon itself would have been far brighter and glaring. Overall, the subtle message is a destination under a brilliant moon… gosh, look at me, I’m playing around being artsy. You don’t even need a subject at the end of your leading lines, if you want there to be mystery or even the idea of going nowhere, if that’s your message. Just remember that the viewer follows them, so use them judiciously.

By the way, I just wanted to point out that the two images I’ve used so far have their own balance, a subtle emphasis towards one side or another, and thus they were placed alongside the text appropriate to leading into the text, rather than away from it. Meanwhile, if you remember the Rule of Thirds post, you might notice that the roadside image hews pretty well, placing the road in the lower third and the moon almost precisely at the focal intersection of the upper left cross – but the waterfall image doesn’t fit well at all, breaking the rule more than it fits. So, did you like one better than the other before I mentioned this? It’s no use asking you to consider them now that I’ve tainted your subconscious with what’s “good” and “bad”…

Getting back to depth, there’s a pair of effects illustrated here that can be used as well, in the right conditions. Atmospheric haze increases with distance, so images over a significant distance can show depth if you capture the bluish haze that separates, for instance, distant hills, and you can select light and weather conditions to enhance this, such as early morning as the fog is lifting. Notice how there is a distinct foreground row of trees, with the hill and the peak behind them in a slightly different color due to haze. Additionally, autumn colors not only provide a rich, pleasing palette, but often serve to distinguish individual trees from one another, once again increasing that feeling of depth. Had this image been taken in high summer, the trees would all have been the same color and would blend together, reducing the idea of depth. But here you can almost judge exactly how far away the peak is, can’t you?

As another aside, I mentioned in a previous composition post that being aware of the clouds can make a difference, and waiting for them to be right for the subject is time well spent. For this one, I waited for the clouds to provide a break around the peak, because I found the image stronger with a blue sky background rather than a cloud back there, and it provides some contrast to the reds and oranges of the foliage.

Three of my favorite examples of depth in images (well, my own images, anyway) can be found here, here, and here. As with any compositional element, there are circumstances where it works better, and others where it does not, or isn’t really needed. It’s an easy thing to play with, and can be induced from plenty of photo opportunities, so have fun with it!

My apologies

If you had any difficulty with this site in the past day or two, I apologize. Some settings got skewed I believe, and it took me a while to recognize them. I think everything is back to normal now (and upgraded to boot.) If you’re still having issues, try to reach me on the Contact page above, or through my main website Feedback page.

I’ll be back with real content shortly. Thanks for your patience!

Changing the rules

[Sorry, I’ve been away for several days and come back with a 3,100 word exposition. Is that making up for it or being sadistic?]

In watching the discussions on a couple of forums recently, and knowing how things have gone in several of my own discussions on religion, a couple of points have made themselves clear. These were things that I suspect I have understood subconsciously for a long time, but haven’t really articulated until now.

The first is the arbitrary and selective application of standards, or “rules of evidence” if you will. This is paid homage to, very subtly, in a fairly common debate point among atheists: “I simply believe in one less god than you do.” The point is, there have been literally thousands of gods and supernatural beings throughout history, in most cultures and with a wide variety of properties, powers, and forms. Virtually none of them are taken seriously by anyone, no matter how devout, except for one (or one set): the one that the devout happens to follow. All of the rest – thor and quetzalcoatl, gaea and janus and raksasa, bast and tsetse bumba – are all considered mythology (thanks to godchecker.com for a couple of these.) But if you ever ask for the distinction between myth and god, and believe me I have, you never get a useful answer. There never seems to be any rule, standard, test, or evidence that can be made to apply, to differentiate one (the “true” god) from another.

Quiz time!

All right, so today marks the second anniversary of my first blog post, with this being the 148th actual post. No, this doesn’t call for a celebration, because I’m not only not into relatively meaningless milestones, I expected to be seeing more visits than this by now. Ah well.

So instead, I’ll provide a quiz question (mostly because I feel some need to put something up here today.) Relying on this chapter, refer to the image at top. I was waiting for the gusting wind to blow some loose snow across the frame to lend a little atmosphere to the composition, so I was holding the same framing in the viewfinder for several minutes. Can you tell me why, in order to do this, I had to keep shifting my vantage point?

The answer lies immediately below – click and drag across the blank space with your cursor, highlighting the text to read the answer. I’d offer a prize to the first person to e-mail me with the correct answer, but considering the dearth of comments, I might be waiting a while. So instead, here’s the explanation:
The moon and sun both move across the sky by their own width in 150 seconds, just two and a half minutes, so the moon was continually moving behind the tree branches. I had to keep moving to my left, and slightly backwards, to keep the moon in roughly the same position in relation to the closer branches.
When you’re in the northern hemisphere and facing south, the moon moves to the right (west of course,) in this case, towards the dark side. Once it passes its new (blank) phase, the sunlit side will exchange and be the reverse of what is seen here.

Did you get it?

Whether you did or not, check this out the next opportunity you get – its a neat thing to watch happen.

Thanks for visiting!

Ya work with what ya get

On christmas evening, the threatened storms rolled in, giving us the third snowfall of December. This is a fairly rare occurrence for this latitude, where we usually don’t get snows until January at least, and often not this heavy. While I learned how to drive in central New York, I don’t have a vehicle ready for winter driving, so when the roads get treacherous, I stay home. In this case, I’m at The Girlfriend’s Place, which is semi-urban and not a scenic area. Most noticeably, it’s difficult to do any kind of wider-angle photography without getting houses and wires in the photo. So my winter photography recently has been pretty limited.

Above, a mockingbird realizes some more calories are needed to keep warm, and snacks on some late berries. Birds are a good subject in wintertime, since they remain active but become much easier to spot, and generally stand out well against the snow and bare branches – much better with brighter light than this, though.

But sometimes, you can do something a little different. The clouds were clearing tonight, allowing a few scattered stars to peek through. A long exposure (in this case 20 seconds) can bring up the fainter stars, set against the snow-covered branches illuminated by the streetlights. I chose darker branches for this image to emphasize the stars more, and to allow more of an impression of what you’d see gazing up from a dark locale. Right now I haven’t determined if the constellation Orion is obvious enough to most viewers, or if the three belt stars are more confusing in their symmetry and I should have stayed with just a random star patch.

Journalistic integrity

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently on photojournalism, one by the editors of Time, the other by the editors of National Geographic, and it’s brought up some things I’ve kicked around in my head for a long time regarding how we think of photojournalism, and most especially editing. Lucky you now gets to read them, if you skip below the break.

Cold weather tips

Six months ago, I provided some tips for shooting in hot weather, so I think this obligates me, by the unwritten laws of blog topics, to write about cold weather tips now. Just as a matter of amusement, I’ll note that in that linked post from June 30th of this year, I remarked about writing it at the break of a hot spell – which many people know was only the beginning of one of the hottest summers on record throughout much of the US. Superstition would have me keep my mouth shut at this point…

The first tip is obvious enough: dress appropriately. But “appropriate” for photography has some additional factors. You’ll want warm gloves, but the ability to operate camera controls too, so either a pair that gives good fingertip dexterity, or a second thinner pair to wear under the first, so you can whip the heavier gloves off to operate the camera yet still not be bare-handed. Your jacket should also provide two things: adequate coverage for walking, stooping, climbing, and dodging, for getting to those good vantage points and angles that I talked about previously; and enough space inside to warm up the camera, lenses, film, and/or batteries when needed. If you’re the type to use a photography vest, you’ll want to have this on underneath your jacket, because it gives lots of pockets inside the warm and dry shell your jacket provides.

Batteries operate efficiently only in a narrow range of temperatures, and getting cold means they drop off in power delivery drastically – don’t be alarmed, since this comes back when they’re warm again. You should have extra charged batteries anyway, no matter what the shooting conditions, but for cold weather, they should be held close to your body heat. Camera bodies are also not terribly temperature stable, and only a short period out in open air will drop their overall temperature down to rob batteries of power, and make the camera uncomfortable to hold, so the ability to get it inside your jacket can help. Decently padded camera bags will retain some warmth through insulation, but don’t be fooled; this is only as long as the camera remains warm. Once it gets cold, putting it inside the bag does nothing but keep it cold, and in fact, may make the situation worse as you hide the camera away from whatever warming affect the sunlight has. The camera will not produce its own heat to bundle around it, like our bodies do.

Having padded tripod legs provides a serious benefit now, as it gives you something to grab that is not metal that’s been sitting out in cold weather (which reminds me: tempting as it may be, leaving the tripod out in the car means you’ve pre-chilled it to painful levels when you need it.) Many tripods come with padding, and you can buy them from the manufacturers as well, but I just use pipe insulation. It’s cheap and easily replaced when it gets chewed up, and better padding and insulation anyway.

A hat with a good-sized brim helps with blowing snow, dripping meltwater, and provides some protection against the low sun angles of wintertime. But it can also get in the way of operating the camera, so there’s a tradeoff. I still prefer my stiff brims as better protection, but it does mean I shove the hat up higher as I put my eye to the viewfinder. Also, cover your ears. A full-face ski-mask helps with exposed skin during wind-chill conditions, but the opening for mouth and nose can sometimes serve to hold warm, moist air against the camera as you compose your shot, fogging the viewfinder.

Get in the habit of closing your camera bag at all times, since blowing snow and dripping water will get inside easily. Also have plastic bags or camera covers handy to keep it off the camera when you’re set up on the tripod and waiting for the right conditions, and a small towel is always a good thing to carry to dry things off (plus it’s rumored that Bugblatter Beasts are more active in colder weather.)

A curious little tip: think carefully about your shots before you venture ahead, especially when looking at that pristine snowfield – once you’ve dragged your tracks through it, you’ve got a long wait before they’re invisible again. Staying to the edges of fields and treelines keeps the evidence of your presence less likely to be in the middle of your composition, as well as helping you stay hidden when the deer or fox appears in your view.

Sunny days, of course, provide the best conditions for winter shots, giving great color and bright snow, and the lower humidity of wintertime means the skies tend to be more deeply blue. You also have the opportunity to get nice color refraction effects from ice and snow, but be warned: even seeing these in the viewfinder is no guarantee that you’ll capture them in the image, since the closing of the aperture as the shutter opens might cut off the effect. Setting for maximum aperture, as seen in this shot, can help ensure that you catch it, as well as providing nice round ghosts instead of ones shaped like your aperture, hexagonal or octagonal. If you want to know more about this, I’ve explained the effects in detail on this page.

If your car is nearby, park it facing the sun if you can – this will provide the best greenhouse heating within the vehicle and may give you a warm haven for breaks. Setting the camera or batteries on the dash can help restore heat, and you can even start the car and set your wet gloves atop the engine to dry – just remember that they’re there and don’t set them on a dirty surface. And if you have a car charger for your batteries, all the better.

If you’ve been out for any length of time, your camera and lenses will have chilled down, which means taking special care when you enter a warm building. The cold surfaces will attract condensation and fog up seriously, so keep the camera in your bag and the lens caps on until everything warms up. If you need to shoot indoors quickly, pop everything into ziplock bags so they can absorb the heat quickly while not being exposed to humidity.

To top it all off, I finished my instruction page for creating a sun and moon guide for 2011. With a little bit of effort (maybe 15 minutes,) you’ll have a chart that tells you precise rise, set, and transit times for the sun and moon in your area, all year long. This is more useful than you might think, when you’re actually planning your scenic and artistic photos (which is a good idea.) It’s one thing to catch a good sunrise; it’s another to be on location among a great setting to take full advantage of it. Yes, I know your fancy cellphone can do this for you – until you can’t get a signal, and in many of the places I shoot, that’s exactly what happens. Use whatever works for you, but planning can make a world of difference.

Enjoy the holidays!

As close as it gets

Yep, I’m actually out watching the lunar eclipse progress – or at least, I was. The conditions are deteriorating and I’m both too cold and too tired to stay with it. This is as close as I’m likely to get to live-blogging, by the way. I know that’s disappointing my legions of followers who have been waiting for an update.

In my area, we’ve got thin overcast starting to obscure the details and reducing the light from the moon, making the earthglow of the shadowed portion difficult to capture. It’s cold enough that I can’t remain outside with the digital camera (even if I was so inclined) because the batteries lose their charge in such conditions.

Anyway, I’ll be back shortly with some cold-weather tips and a new addition, my christmas gifts to you. Hopefully, if you’re following the eclipse you’re having better luck than I am – I don’t get too fired up about planning astronomical observations like eclipses and meteor showers anymore, since the weather cooperates only haphazardly. In the meantime, you can check out this animated gif of the last total lunar we had, a few years ago. You’ll notice some exposure variations as we tried to stay on top of the changing light levels, capturing either the shadowed or sunlit side. That was a much better night.

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